Bending Toward Justice: BATS Congress and the Fight Against Corporate Education Reform Taking Back the Power of Teachers

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(NOTE: This article was written by Yohuru Williams and Steven Singer)

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.—Mahatma Gandhi

Nearly a year ago today, I joined an inspiring band of intrepid activists who made their way to the nation’s capital to protest the impact of high stakes testing and corporate education reform. We arrived with the genuine hope that a demonstration at the Department of Education might encourage a national discussion about what many have rightfully identified as the destruction of public education.

After a long day of speeches and activities, a representative from the Department came out and asked for a meeting. After being ushered through security, a small contingent of protesters and I travelled upstairs where we were hustled into a small conference room. After a few minutes, Secretary Arne Duncan joined us. He stayed for only a few minutes, sometimes listening, but mostly politely but firmly pushing back and evading our grievances. It was clear that we had come to the wrong place.

After he departed, Arne’s staff pressed us for solutions. I suggested a National Teacher Congress that would allow real teachers, from across the nation, and from all backgrounds and districts, to convene in Washington to earnestly discuss and explore solutions. Arne’s aides perked up. “What a fantastic idea,” one his staffers chimed in. In abstract it was, but as we debated it in the weeks following the protest it was clear that we needed something stronger. We felt acknowledged for sure, but certainly not heard. For all the power projected on him, Arne is a functionary and we determined that we needed to go after the persons and entities on whose behalf he functioned.

In the months that followed my idea of a Teachers Congress morphed into a week of lobbying to educate elected officials about the detrimental impact of corporate education exacerbated by rampant racism and poverty. The idea of a National Badass Teachers Association (BATs) Congress was born.

On Saturday, July 24, 2015 I reprised my role as keynote speaker as part of that Congress, but the real action had already taken place as my fellow BAT and edu-blogger Steven Singer of Pennsylvania chronicles below. The BATs returned to DC, not to revisit history but to continue our mission of creating real opportunity and equity in the nation’s schools. For even as we all firmly believe, as the Reverend Dr. King once expressed that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, we also acknowledge that sometimes you have to push at its base to help it’s curvature along. —Yohuru Williams

Steven Singer:

We came to Washington, D.C., in ones, twos and threes.

We came by the carload. On the train. In transcontinental flights. Even walked.

No mass uprising. No angry rhetoric. No fists shaking.

No corporate funding. No thick rolls of bills. Just whatever jingling change we could spare for travel, room and board.

We occupied the Capitol stuffed overcapacity in hotel rooms, sometimes sleeping on the floor or even in the hall.

Not ideologues, not Democrats, not Republicans – just parents, teachers, students, people.

Who are we? We are the Badass Teachers Association. And we came to be heard.

Last year we stood outside the U.S. Department of Education to air our grievances. We spoke to those walls, we spoke to each other and the open air. We spoke with such volume, the doors opened and we were invited inside.

And in the presence of The Powerful, we didn’t stumble, we didn’t lose our courage, we told the truth to their disbelieving faces.

Our public schools are not failing. YOU are failing our public schools.

Your policies are poisonous. Your testing is treasonous. Your facts are fallacious. Your designs are dangerous. Your ideas imperious. Your lectures libelous. Your measures malicious. Your networks nefarious. Your rigor ridiculous. Your standards suspicious.

Secretary Duncan, next year you should convene a congress of teachers. They would tell you what needs to be done.

 

And we meant it.

We didn’t wait for permission. We didn’t wait for an invitation. We gathered our own power, gathered our selves and this year became the Badass Teachers Congress.

For two days we marched up Capitol Hill and into the halls of the House and Senate. We made appointments months in advance to sit down with our legislators, and if they wouldn’t meet with us, we sat down with their aides, and if they wouldn’t commit to a meeting, we showed up anyway.

We told them the truth. Right to their faces if they were brave enough to face us.

We didn’t wait for education policy to be directed by education experts. We presented our expertise, offered it freely, shook hands, smiled and looked them right in the eye.

But we didn’t stop there. Telling Congress is one thing. We BECAME a Congress.

We drew on our own first hand experiences of the failure of national education policy. We drew on research, peer-reviewed studies, the fruits of universities and colleges – real, unmanipulated data.

And we came up with resolutions.

We acknowledged that our labor unions sometimes fail to live up to their promise. But we didn’t throw them away. We devised ways to strengthen them, to increase their power to empower and make them more like us.

We shared our fear of being the lone dissenting voice and planned ways to overcome ourselves and speak up for our children and communities even if our voices shake.

We acknowledged our national history of racism, sexism, and prejudice. And we didn’t allow our many different shades of skin to provide offense, we didn’t allow our various cultures, ethnicities, religions and sexualities to become a burden. We drew on our differences as a strength and committed ourselves to acknowledging the ways we have been disenfranchised. We decided on a path of love and acceptance even if that path might take us to places that make us uncomfortable, we’d go there together.

We resolved to continue protecting teachers from toxic work environments that far too often become abusive. Too many of our colleagues have taken their own lives due to the toll of this job. We are the last line of defense between children and people who would sooner sell their futures for a few pieces of silver. And finally the problem is being recognized and steps are being taken – slowly – to help.

In short, we did what The Powerful least expected or wanted. We held each other up. We recognized our own power and vision. We organized, made plans and set the course for our future.

In the weeks that follow, more details will emerge. We’re still examining the incredible input, ideas and information. So much happened, it’s hard for any one person to encapsulate it all.

But of this you can be sure.

We are the Badass Teachers Association.

We are not waiting to be invited anywhere. We are not asking permission. We are taking control of our own destinies.

And we will be back.


 About the Authors:

Yohuru Williams is an author, Professor of History and Black Studies, and education activist. Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, and blogger, education advocate. Both are members of the Badass Teachers Association.

williams-singerNOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive.

Down and Out and Lobbying for Public Education

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the start.

I’m no lobbyist.

I’m just a private citizen who’s sick of seeing his tax dollars swallowed up by big corporations under the guise of educational accountability.

I’m just a public school teacher who’s tired of his profession being demonized by policymakers and media talking heads alike.

And I’m just a father who’s worried that his daughter won’t get the same comprehensive public education he received as a child.

No one paid me. In fact, I bankrolled myself.

So like more than 300 members of the Badass Teachers Association (BATS), I came to Washington, D.C., to speak with my Congresspeople.

And what a day it was!

I met with Senators Pat Toomey (R-PA), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Corey Booker (D-NJ). I met with U.S. Reps Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ).

Well, actually I met with their legislative aides.

None of the actual lawmakers made time to sit down with a flesh and blood teacher.

In one case, a legislator seemingly went out of his way to avoid me.

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While sitting on the couch in Doyle’s office, he came out of a room to the left of me, asked his secretary for packing tape and then told her he was leaving for the day. It was 2:47 p.m. on Friday.

And they say teachers have easy hours!

I can’t say whether he was actively avoiding me. I made an appointment to see him, but it was never specified if I’d be meeting with him in person or if I’d be with his aide.

For all I know his staff never let him know I was a constituent sitting there on his couch in a suit and tie with a folder perched on my lap. But it didn’t feel good.

Maybe I should have said something. “Congressman Doyle! May I have a moment?”

But I frankly couldn’t believe this was happening. Moreover, he looks a lot different in a purple Hawaiian shirt than he does in all his press photos wearing a suit. I had to check his picture on my phone to make sure I was really seeing this correctly.

I was.

Still the meetings I had with these kids helping my legislators decide public policy were actually quite productive.

Without exception these youngsters were friendly, polite and knowledgeable. They seemed receptive to new ideas, were eager to hear my point of view, asked intelligent questions and were honest about where their bosses sometimes disagreed with me.

In Sen. Toomey’s office his assistants even asked if I was THAT Steven Singer.

“Who?” I said.

And they told me about a famous advertising campaign in eastern PA where a jeweler’s competitors are seen to complain “I HATE STEVEN SINGER.”

I laughed and told them it wasn’t me, but inside I wondered if that might explain the difficulty I had in some circumstances making these appointments. Maybe congressional staff thought I was pranking them. “Steven Singer wants an appointment!? Yeah! I’ll schedule it right after we see Mickey Mouse!”

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I first met with Devorah Goldman, Toomey’s legislative correspondent on education and other issues. She’d only been on the job for about a year, but her qualifications included a degree in social work and she had worked in a public school resource center.

She was a very good listener. She heard me out as I spoke about a homeless student in my classes this year. She listened as I explained why Common Core is bad policy, why we need equitable school funding, an end to high stakes standardized tests, reigning in charter schools and voucher systems, and an end to judging teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Her boss isn’t exactly known as an education advocate. But she said he would agree with most of what I had said.

The main area of dispute would be charter schools. Toomey is in favor of expanding them so students can escape “failing schools.”

I explained that it was bad policy to try to save some students and let others fall behind. We need to make sure ALL our schools do an excellent job. Moreover, the Senator’s metric for determining which schools are failing is faulty at best.

I explained that traditional public schools often outperformed charter schools, which lack transparency and accountability and are wasting taxpayers dollars.

“We’ll just have to disagree on that point,” she said without explanation.

But she agreed to continue to take input from me and the BATS in the future.

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At Doyle’s office, I eventually sat down with Hannah Malvin, a political science major who, at least, is from the Pittsburgh area – her boss’ legislative district.

She listened intently to my tales of education woe, even asking follow up questions. But she was surprised I supported the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Even the strongest supporters of the rewrite of the federal law that governs K-12 schools would admit it isn’t perfect. However, I would contend that the new version being cobbled together by the House and the Senate appears to be a slight improvement over what we have now – No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Some educators think even this rewrite doesn’t go far enough to scale back standardized testing (and I sympathize but do not agree with that position). However, Malvin said Doyle had issues with it because it scaled back too much.

This was the issue I heard from Democrats all day. There isn’t enough accountability in the ESEA rewrite. How will we know which schools need extra help, they asked again-and-again.

I tried to explain that all they had to do was look at per-pupil spending. It’s no mystery which kids aren’t getting enough resources. It’s all right there on a ledger.

To her credit she heard me out and agreed to continue to dialogue with me on this subject in the future.

Next, I met up with some fellow teacher lobbyists from New Jersey and we dropped in unannounced on Booker’s office.

It’s not that we didn’t try to make an appointment. His staff never returned our calls and emails.

In fact, last week a fellow teacher not with us on Capitol Hill, Michele Miller,  even got into a scuffle with Booker on Twitter about elementary school funding. He told her to call his office and he would talk to her in detail.

To my knowledge, he never did. However, she was connected by phone to one of his aides. I’m told this is just modus operandi for Booker – strong talk in a public forum but shying away when the cameras aren’t rolling.

In any case, Booker’s senior education and health policy adviser Ashley Eden agreed to talk with us when we showed up to the office. Though her background isn’t in education, I can’t recall exactly what it is in. I do remember she has been doing this sort of legislative work for lawmakers for about 4 years – longer than any other aide we met.

She immediately made us feel welcome and found many areas of agreement. Bookers’ major point of contention – like fellow Democrat Doyle – was accountability.

How do we know which kids need help without giving them standardized tests?

Groan. But at least I had reinforcements: BATS Assistant Manager Melissa Tomlinson and retired NJ teacher extraordinaire Elizabeth DeMarco.

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Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire conversation was when Eden said Booker just had to back standardized testing because every Civil Rights organization wanted it. She even criticized the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) for not supporting black and brown students.

We stopped her right there. No. Every Civil Rights organization does NOT support testing. Journey for Justice – a coalition of 38 such organizations, in conjunction with 175 additional likeminded groups wrote to both the House and Senate asking to eliminate testing. Didn’t Sen. Booker see the letter?

Suddenly she remembered it.

She said she read it real quickly and didn’t like one sentence in it so she ignored it.

Which sentence?

Something about expecting poor and minority students to do badly on tests.

I explained that it has nothing to do with thinking these children can’t achieve at the same level as other children. It’s a matter of resources. If Sen. Booker was in a foot race against someone in a Monster Truck, I’d vote on the truck. Doesn’t mean Booker can’t run or that he might not even win. But the smart money is on Big Foot.

I joined the two ladies for their meeting with Smith as well.

His legislative assistant, Katherine Talalas, was perhaps the most knowledgeable aide with whom we talked. Her mother is a special education teacher, her brother is a paraprofessional working in a public school and she went to law school focusing on education issues.

She also took more written notes than any other assistant. With her nothing seemed canned. It was a real conversation about what her boss had done to help special education students and how he might continue to help in the future.

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I was on my own again to meet with Sen. Casey’s aide, Jared Solomon.

This was one of the most fascinating and perplexing conversations I had all day.

He was warm, friendly, and had a depth of knowledge that was a bit more political than school-centered.

He agreed with almost everything I said. Casey supports 95% of the things that are important to me in education.

I could have smiled and walked away happy, but Solomon was so gregarious he kept talking. We shared our backgrounds.

He proudly admitted that he had been a Teach for America (TFA) recruit. He worked two years in a Baltimore public school and then left. He knew it wasn’t going to be his permanent job. He was emulating his parents who had joined the Peace Corps. He did TFA because he wanted the experience.

Then he moved to the administrative offices of Michelle Rhee’s Washington, D.C., Public Schools.

He only worked there two years – only one of which was under Rhee’s administration – but he respected what they had done. He said he disagreed with 80% of their policies and even quit because he was tired of being blamed for practices with which he didn’t agree. But, he added, the people in Rhee’s administration worked harder than anyone he knew, and he thought they really had the best interests of the kids at heart.

I’m tempted to chalk it up to the same feeling the incredible blogger Jennifer Berkshire (a.k.a. Edushyster) says she gets when she interviews many corporate school reformers. We may disagree with them, but they really do believe this stuff.

But something happened that doesn’t sit well with me. In an unguarded moment of a more than hour-long conversation, Solomon pulled the same stunt Eden did for Sen. Booker. He said all the Civil Rights groups were crying out for testing. But when I called him out on it, he immediately took it back. It was like he, too, knew this was untrue. It was a talking point, quickly to be conceded if called out and then move on to another argument.

I frankly don’t know what to make of it. The arguments are too similar among Democrats and Republicans to shrug off. Each is speaking from a party line script. That can’t just be a coincidence.

And why would Casey, a legislator who supposedly agrees with me 95% of the time on education, hire as his education expert someone who was actively involved in many of the practices that go directly against his beliefs? Why would someone like Solomon, who was part of the corporate education reform movement, really be on my side against these policies?

It’s befuddling to say the least.

Now that it’s all over, I’m so glad I did this.

Will this change the nation’s education policies? Probably not.

But I am only one of hundreds of people who climbed Capitol Hill in the last two days and met with more than 52 federal legislators to fight against the standardization and privatization of education.

And tomorrow we, BATS, will hold a Teachers Congress to further solidify our goals and decide where the great ship of real positive school change should go.

I am so looking forward to it.

But this teacher, soon-to-be BAT Congressman, needs to go to bed.

Here’s to a brilliant tomorrow for our children.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

A Brief Lesson in Pennsylvania Budget Math: a VLOG

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WATCH THE VLOG BELOW:

Welcome to my first (and possibly last) VLOG or Video Log. If you haven’t already, please click on the video above, grab some popcorn and enjoy A Brief Lesson in Pennsylvania Budget Math.

Our state budget impasse continues to grow. The Republican-controlled legislature refuses to replace the almost $1 billion in annual education funding lawmakers removed 4 years ago. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf refuses to accept a spending plan that shortchanges our school children.

This is my attempt to bring clarity to the situation so ANYONE could understand what was at stake and maybe see through some of the half truths and misdirections surrounding the issue. After all, who better than a public school teacher to explain to Republicans why they need to fund our schools?

Basically, the whole video can be summarized in this graph from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center:

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For more information, please check out these other fine Gadfly on the Wall Blog articles:


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

We Shall Overcome… Our Lack of Standardized Tests!?

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Civil Rights groups have long championed the needs of people of color, women and minorities.

Segregated schools, voting rights, police brutality – all of these have been the subject of long and brutal fights for equality.

Perhaps the strangest turn in 2015 has been the fight for standardized testing.

That’s right. Organizations that you’d expect to see fighting against racism have been clamoring for access to multiple choice bubble exams.

In fact, the Democrats have used this as an excuse for their failed attempts to keep the much maligned Test and Punish policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law – currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – is a testing corporation’s dream filled with policies that have been failing our children for 13 years. Unsurprisingly, teachers, parents and students are demanding relief.

But do Civil Rights groups who fought against unfair testing as a prerequisite to vote now really demand unfair testing as a prerequisite for a high school diploma?

The answer is yes and no.

SOME Civil Rights groups have demanded more testing, and others have demanded LESS.

The Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, wrote Congress an open letter in July asking for an end to high stakes testing. And the JJA wasn’t alone. The alliance was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations who signed on to the letter to “…call on the U.S. Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization without requiring the regime of oppressive, high stakes, standardized testing and sanctions that have recently been promoted as civil rights provisions within ESEA.”

However, the JJA’s call has been largely ignored by lawmakers and the media. A much smaller coalition of Civil Rights organizations in favor of testing, on the other hand, has been given so much press you’d be excused if you thought they represented the entire activist community.

Yes, 19 Civil Rights organizations wrote to Congress in January, 2015, asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

However, 11 Civil Rights groups – many of them the exact same groups – wrote to Obama in October, 2014, asking him to reduce standardized testing.

What happened in less than 3 months, to change their minds?

It’s hard to say, but in October the prospect of rewriting the ESEA – the federal law that governs K-12 schools – seemed impossible. Neither Democrats nor Republicans could find any common ground. It looked like the law – which was last reauthorized in 2007 – would be pushed aside until at least the next president was sworn in.

But then like magic when the political situation changed and reauthorization seemed like it might actually happen, suddenly a coalition of Civil Rights organizations found their love for standardized testing.

It seems highly unlikely that these two events are unrelated.

But why would these organizations change their tune so quickly?

One very real possibility is money.

Most of the groups now backing standardized assessments accept huge sums of money from one of the richest men in the world – Bill Gates. And Bill loves standardized tests.

In many ways, his business profits from them. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wouldn’t exist without his backing, and they depend on standardized tests. Moreover, most states give these assessments on computers – many of which have Microsoft emblazoned on the hard drive. And this doesn’t even count the test preparation software sold to help students get higher test scores.

The sad fact is that standardized testing is big business in this country. Everyone from book publishers to software manufacturers to professional development providers to for-profit prisons depend on the continuation of the testocracy.

And many of these Civil Rights groups would be crippled without that Gates funding. Others seem more like think tanks that really have nothing to do with Civil Rights.

Take Education Trust – an advocacy group that helped create NCLB and CCSS. It should be no surprise the organization took $49 million from Gates and thinks bubble tests are just wonderful.

However, even laudable groups like the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) owe Gates a debt.

UNCF took more than $1.5 billion from Gates. Ostensibly that money is supposed to go to scholarships. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But how could the organization go against the wishes of perhaps its biggest donor? The consequences could be disastrous for UNCF’s entirely worthy mission.

One can imagine administrators stuck between a rock and a hard place having to compromise their stance against testing in order to continue helping people of color fulfill their dreams of going to college.

Other suddenly pro-test organizations taking money from Gates include: La Raza, The Leadership Conference, National Urban League, and Children Defense Fund.

And that’s only the half of it.

To make matters worse, standardized tests don’t enhance students’ Civil Rights. They violate them.

Test scores are used as an excuse to continue spending less money on poor schools who serve mostly minority populations.

Proponents say these assessments hold schools accountable for providing children with a quality education. But how can you provide an education of equal quality with a rich school when you don’t receive even close to the same amount of funding to begin with?

Moreover, test scores have been shown countless times to be poor indicators of academic success. They are, however, excellent predictors of parental income. Poor kids score low. Rich kids score high. So when we take away funding based on low test scores and increase it based on high test scores, we only reinforce the status quo and compound the hurt against people of color.

But this sudden public mea culpa from some Civil Rights organizations is being used by political pundits to justify continuing the practices that would make Martin Luther King, Jr., turn in his grave.

And it’s not over. As Congress continues to hobble together a new version of the ESEA, politicians – mostly Democrats – are bound to lobby for as much federally mandated testing as possible. Even Obama has promised to veto the bill if it doesn’t contain enough love for the testing industry.

It’s up to education voters to educate themselves on the subject and demand real Civil Rights reforms.

End the system of Test and Punish.

Remove or reduce standardized testing from our schools.

Provide equitable funding for schools serving impoverished children.

And give our students of color a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Almost every Democrat in the US Senate just voted to keep Test and Punish.

But Republicans defeated them.

I know. I feel like I just entered a parallel universe, too. But that’s what happened.

Some facts:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a disaster.

It took the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a federal law designed to ensure all schools get equitable resources and funding – and turned it into a law about standardized testing and punishing schools that don’t measure up.

This was a Republican policy proposed by President George W. Bush.

But now that the ESEA is being rewritten, those pushing to keep the same horrendous Bush era policies are the Democrats.

Almost all of the Democrats!

That includes so-called far left Dems like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren!

It comes down to the Murphy Amendment, a Democratically sponsored change to the ESEA.

This provision was an attempt to keep as many Test and Punish policies as possible in the Senate rewrite.

The amendment, “reads more like NCLB, with its detailed prescription for reporting on student test results, for ‘meaningfully differentiating among all public schools’ (i.e., grading schools), including publicly identifying the lowest five percent, and, among interventions, potentially firing staff and offering students the option to transfer to other schools and using part of the budget to pay for the transportation,” according to blogger Mercedes Schneider.

Education historian Diane Ravich adds, “This amendment would have enacted tough, federal-mandated accountability, akin to setting up an ‘achievement school district’ in every state.”

Thankfully it was voted down. The ESEA will probably not be affected. The rewrite was passed by both the House and Senate without these provisions. Once the two versions of the bill are combined, it is quite possible – maybe even probable – that we’ll have a slight improvement on NCLB. Sure there is plenty of crap in it and plenty of lost opportunities, but the ESEA rewrite looks to be a baby step in the right direction.

The problem is this: the failed Murphy Amendment shows the Democrats’ education vision. Almost all of them voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

When it was defeated and the Senate approved the ESEA rewrite, Warren released a statement expressing her disapproval. But if you didn’t know about the Murphy Amendment, you could have read her criticisms quite differently.

She says the (ESEA rewrite) “eliminates basic, fundamental safeguards to ensure that federal dollars are actually used to improve both schools and educational outcomes for those students who are often ignored.”

That sounds good until you realize what she means. “Educational outcomes” mean test scores. She’s talking about test-based accountability. She is against the ESEA rewrite because it doesn’t necessarily put strings on schools’ funding based on standardized test scores like NCLB.

She continues, “Republicans have blocked every attempt to establish even minimum safeguards to ensure that money would be used effectively. I am deeply concerned that billions in taxpayer dollars will not actually reach those schools and students who need them the most…”

She is upset because Republicans repeatedly stripped away federal power to Test and Punish schools. The GOP gave that power to the states. So Warren is concerned that somewhere in this great nation there may be a state or two that decides NOT to take away funding if some of their schools have bad test scores! God forbid!

And Warren’s about as far left as they come!

What about liberal lion Bernie Sanders? I’d sure like an explanation for his vote.

It makes me wonder if when he promised to “end No Child Left Behind,” did he mean the policies in the bill or just the name!?

The Democrats seem to be committed to the notion that the only way to tell if a school is doing a good job is by reference to its test scores. High test scores – good school. Bad test scores – bad school.

This is baloney! Test scores show parental income, not academic achievement. Virtually every school with low test scores serves a majority of poor children. Virtually every school with high test scores serves rich kids.

Real school accountability would be something more akin to the original vision of the ESEA – making sure each district had what it needs to give kids the best education possible. This means at least equalizing funding to poverty schools so they have the same resources as wealthy ones. Even better would be ending our strange reliance on local property taxes to provide the majority of district monies.

But the Dems won’t hear it. The Murphy Amendment seems to show that they’re committed to punishing poor schools and rewarding rich ones.

I really hope I’m wrong about this. Please, anyone out there, talk me down!

Up until now I’ve always been with the Democrats because they had better – though still bad – education policies than the Republicans. I’m not sure I can say that anymore. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

Which party is most committed to ending Common Core? The Republicans!

Which party has championed reducing federal power over our schools and giving us a fighting chance at real education reforms? Republicans!

Which party more often champion’s parental rights over the state? Republicans!

Sure, most of them still love vouchers and charter schools. But increasingly so do the Democrats.

This vote has me rethinking everything.

Our country’s education voters may have just been abandoned by their longest ally.

Where do we go from here?


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also mentioned in the Washington Post.

In ESEA Debate, Education is Caught in the Middle Between the State and Fed

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Watching Congress debate national education policy is a bit like going to a tennis match and finding a truck and tractor pull has erupted.

“Isn’t this supposed to be about how to make our schools better?” I want to scream.

“No!” someone yells from the stands. “This is about States’ Rights vs. the Fed. Go, States!”

Face palm.

The current brouhaha centers around the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

The present version, called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is a thorough disaster. Thankfully Congress is trying to rewrite the legislation.

However, in doing so the emphasis has been less on making things better and more on deciding who gets to make decisions about schools.

Republican President George W. Bush greatly increased federal control with NCLB, something Democratic President Barack Obama has continued through his education policies.

These days, the GOP has done a 180 and is the champion of states rights to make their own education policies.

Given the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on standardized testing, punitive accountability systems and top down education standards, a move away from federalism seems completely justified.

But this is becoming the heart of the debate even at the expense of children, parents and teachers.

Take Opt Out.

NCLB allows parents to opt their children out of standardized testing, but school districts can be punished for it. If more than 5% of the students in a district don’t take the federally mandated tests for whatever reason (including parental opt out), the district’s Title I funding is put in jeopardy.

In many parts of the country, parents are refusing to subject their children to these tests anyway. They are voting with their feet. They are telling our lawmakers they do not want their children to take standardized tests so often – or in many cases – at all.

The good news is that BOTH of the two drafts of the ESEA allow for parental Opt Outs. However, who gets to decide if doing so will penalize your school?

The House version says that opting out will not hurt your district. Period. But the Senate version leaves the matter up to the states. State legislatures get to decide if withholding your child from standardized testing will have punitive consequences for your district.

This is absurd.

It’s not a matter of States’ Rights vs. the Fed. It’s a matter of parental rights.

As a parent, I should have final say over what my child does or does not have to do in school. There may be limits in extreme circumstances (i.e. vaccines) and in terms of content (i.e. science, history), but in general the rights of parents and children should trump all others.

Ironically the parents who shield their children the most from standardized testing are those who champion it for everyone else. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is sending his children to a Chicago private school that does not use standardized tests. Likewise, Obama’s children attend a private school free from the influence of his education policies. Same with corporate education reform cheerleaders Governors Chris Christie and Rahm Emanuel.

So many cooks who refuse to eat their own cooking!

But to return to the ESEA, pundits are lauding the Senate Opt Out restriction as a selling point between the versions of the proposed law. The House version has a better Opt Out provision, so you can choose it.

However, it is also poisoned from the start because (unlike the Senate version) it includes a backdoor voucher provision. Called Title I Portability, the House bill essentially would suck up funding now given to impoverished districts and spit it back into the lap of richer ones. Poor kids need additional funding because they go to poor schools that have less money to spend educating them. If a poor child goes to a rich school, she doesn’t need additional funding – the school already spends more to educate her than a poor district ever could. But the issue is a bit of a nonstarter anyway because Obama already has promised to veto any bill containing it.

So the only option is the Senate version, and they just sunk a big turd in it.

But like any factory farm sausage, you often have to learn to accept a few unsavory morsels in with the meat. Even if the final bill includes this Senate provision, it will be an improvement over NCLB. Punishing schools for parental opt outs is the status quo. If even a few  states decide not to punish their schools because of parents choices, that will be a step in the right direction.

It’s just so frustrating to watch our myopic Congresspeople take such baby steps forward.

Why would anyone try to override parental concerns about testing?

Many legislators worry if all students aren’t tested, there will be no way to determine if school districts are properly educating students.

But that is exactly the point!

Standardized testing does not show how well a school is functioning! It only shows how many poor students go to the school. Rich kids score well; poor kids score badly. And academics? There are so many better means of assessing them than multiple choice exams graded on a curve!

If lawmakers really wanted to ensure all students were getting a quality education, they’d hold BOTH the state and federal governments accountable for equitably funding our schools. No more funding based on local wealth. No more poor kids getting less funding than rich kids. No more kids doing without because mommy and daddy have lousy paying jobs.

Parents, children and educators have been crying out to lawmakers about the injustice of using high stakes tests as means of punishing schools for the poverty of their students. THIS is what needs to change. THIS is the essential reform we’re crying out to be enacted!

But no one’s listening. All they care about is which team is winning – Team State or Team Fed.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog and it was mentioned in the Washington Post.

Did AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

uptown-hillary-clinton

I have nothing against Hillary Clinton.

Heck! I might even vote for her in the coming Presidential race. Maybe…

But the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsement of the former First Lady is strange in many ways.

First, it’s awfully early. The initial Democratic primaries aren’t scheduled for half a year yet – February of 2016 to be exact. And the general election isn’t until Nov. 8, 2016 – more than a year away.

Second, the manner in which this endorsement was reached is somewhat mysterious.

This much seems certain:

1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.

2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

4) NOW the interviews are scheduled to be released to the public.

This is a perplexing timetable. Why would the AFT endorse BEFORE releasing the interviews? Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?

Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?

According to the AFT press release, they were:

The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.

Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.

So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.

But did they really?

Clinton may be the Democratic frontrunner, but she isn’t a favorite for a lot of teachers. Chiefly this is because her education positions are not that great. Sure, she’s better than every Republican running so far. But she has stiff competition in the Democratic field – especially from Sanders.

If Clinton had come out against Common Core, standardized testing and using student test scores to evaluate teachers effectiveness, I wouldn’t question the AFT’s endorsement at all. But she has been rather supportive of these issues – just like our current President, Barack Obama.

Teachers are fed up with Obama’s education policies. Why would they overwhelmingly endorse someone for President who seems bound and determined to continue them?

So I hope I’ll be excused if I ask for a bit more proof than a press release.

Where exactly are the polls, surveys, etc. that show the Clinton support AFT leadership claims?

For instance, which polls produced which results? The press release says AFT members prefer Clinton 3-1. But even if Clinton came out on top consistently, surely the results weren’t identical on every poll. Maybe she got 75% on one and 65% on another.

The AFT hasn’t released everything, but the organization’s website gives us a memo about ONE of these phone surveys. This national survey of membership planning to vote in Democratic primaries found 67% picked Clinton. However, only 1,150 members participated! That’s a far cry from the more than 1 million cited in the press release.

Moreover, there is no mention of what questions were asked. For instance, there is a world of difference between “Who would make the best President?” and “Who is most electable?” Is it possible there was selection bias present in the questions used to make this determination?

But that’s only one survey. Where is the rest of the data? Where is the raw information from this survey? Where is the data from all these other outreach attempts and on-line activities? How many took phone surveys? How many took on-line surveys? And what were the results in each case?

If union members really did endorse Clinton, that’s fine. But many of us would like to see the proof.

I’m not a member of the AFT, but I’m on the mailing list. I never received any survey.

A lot of my friends are AFT members, but none of them recall any survey.

As a member of numerous education and teaching groups, I know of no one else who admits to being polled either. In fact, I haven’t been able to find ANYONE who was polled on this issue!

I admit that’s not exactly scientific. But that’s why I want to see the data! Blind me with science, AFT!

I believe in teachers. I believe in Unions. I believe in Democracy.

Please release the raw data, AFT, so I can believe in this endorsement, too.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.